"The hard way is the right way, the right way is the hard way. When you grow up in the country there isn’t a paved road, there is dirt so you figure it out."
Buzz Williams had it figured out at Marquette. Yes, his team missed the NCAA Tournament in the 2013-14 season, but that came after Marquette made the NCAA Tournament in his first five seasons there. That time period included 2 Big East Regular Season titles and 3 Sweet 16 appearances including 1 trip to the Elite Eight.
But as Williams said, "the hard way is the right way, [and] the right way is the hard way." So despite being at one of the best programs in a power conference like the Big East, a program to remain among the top tier in that conference, Williams decided to take the hard way and after the 2013-14 season, he left for Virginia Tech.
Now there were other factors like the instability of the Marquette administration. Those factors weren't a potential threat to his job, but it simply made it a less stable environment to work at for the time.
However, the biggest thing was that Williams left a top tier job in the Big East at Marquette for an ACC job at Virginia Tech that was viewed among the worst in major conference basketball. Williams took a job in the part of the country he had never coached in at a program hat was most known for being overlooked on Selection Sunday with lots of heartbreak that peaked in 2011 when VT was left out weeks after an upset of #1 Duke where Dick Vitale proclaimed that the Hokies would be "dancing" for only the second time in the 21st Century.
Williams was taking on a Virginia Tech program that had just suffered through three-straight losing seasons with the expectation that the 2014-15 season would be one of the worst for this program.
For just about anyone, staying at Marquette over leaving for Virginia Tech would have been a no brainer even if you had some connections to Virginia Tech or the Commonwealth of Virginia. Combine that with WIlliams' Texas roots and talk of the Longhorns job opening up soon and making a move like that would seem like an unimaginably "hard way" to go in your coaching career to a program that had never been to three-straight NCAA Tournaments and had only once made it past the Round of 32.
Some people are wired differently though and sometimes, "the hard way is the right way."
So Buzz Williams came to Virginia Tech, taking a job that most considered one of the toughest in power conference basketball. He took on a program that was a mess after a messy end to the Seth Greenberg era followed by two of the worst years of modern VT basketball under James Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, struggles came in the first year of the Buzz Williams era as the Hokies went 11-22 in conference including 2-16 in ACC play. Despite the magnitude of the hire, there wasn't a sudden jump in the size of the fan base. If you were a student and wanted to sit within the first few rows of the student section, you could do so during most ACC games. There was some reason for hope from those 2 ACC wins and from a near upset of Duke that should've happened if it wasn't for a terrible no-call as Jalen Hudson went up for a layup right before the buzzer that would have prevented overtime.
However, year 2 didn't provide immediate optimism as the Hokies went 8-5 in non-conference play including a shocking home loss against Alabama State to open the season. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech couldn't even bring in a crowd of 5,000 fans for the first home ACC-Big 10 Challenge game.
Doubts were rightfully raised about whether this was too bad of a job in too tough of a conference. Many likely wondered whether Buzz Williams had possibly shot his promising career in the foot with a move to a program that couldn't possibly be turned around.
But the hard way is the right way and the right way is the hard way, it just sometimes takes some time to figure it out.
And surely they did start to figure it out.
While most expected the Hokies to find their way to the ACC's cellar once again, the Hokies suddenly found something and got off to a 2-0 ACC start that included a massive upset of #4 Virginia. From there, VT became the talk of the conference with a 4-1 start that had many wondering what was going on in Blacksburg.
But then the Hokies lost 7 of their next 8 and all of a sudden went from darling to most seeing what they expected play out. At that point, Virginia Tech seemed bound for another losing season and another finish in the bottom portion of the ACC, an improvement from the past 3 seasons that most fans would be satisfied to see in the second year of such a massive rebuild.
Instead, Virginia Tech won 5 straight games, finished 10-8 in ACC play, beat #7 Miami by 15, earned the 6 seed in the ACC Tournament, won a game in the ACC Tournament for the second-straight season, earned a 3 seed in the NIT, and won an NIT game before falling just short on the road at BYU with only a day of recovery between their home game and a trip to Provo.
Suddenly, Buzz Williams started to go from seeming to insane for taking this job to crazy genius who was building Virginia Tech into something that didn't underperform time and time again.
Slowly but steadily, people started to realize that the hard way was the right way for Buzz Williams and Virginia Tech was the major beneficiary.
The next breakout came in year 3 as a program that was wildly ahead of schedule made the jump to its first NCAA Tournament bid in a decade in a season that included home victories over top 10 Duke and Virginia teams. During that season, the Hokies had to deal with not having an injured Ahmed Hill all season and the loss of Chris Clarke during ACC play which opened the door for Ty Outlaw to breakout and the Hokies to adapt with that required change.
Year 4 saw the Hokies make the NCAA Tournament and earn a higher seed despite the fact that they had lost their two biggest and most critical stars in making the NCAA Tournament (Zach LeDay and Seth Allen) and their top shooter that had provided the spark to keep them away from the bubble (Ty Outlaw). Not many teams are able to lose their two best players, not have their best three-point shooter, and improve from the previous season.
Now in year 5, the Hokies are climbing higher than they ever had before, but they've done so by taking a "hard way" forced upon them by injuries and other unknown things, have gone about it "the right way," and have found ways to figure it out time and time again.
It started before the season when Chris Clarke was suspended indefinitely for an unknown reason, hyped-up freshman Landers Nolley was not allowed to play due to NCAA eligibility reasons, and Khadim Sy had left the program once again, leaving Virginia Tech with one player above 6'5''.
The Hokies got better during the offseason with Nickeil Alexander-Walker breaking out and turning into a likely top 20 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Other Hokies stepped up like Ty Outlaw who became a better rebounder and Wabissa Bede who established himself as a stalwart defender who consistently receives the toughest assignments.
That led to a 17-3 start that included only one non-conference loss to Penn State, a Charleston Classic championship which included a win over likely top 4 seed Purdue, and a top 12 ranking throughout January.
Then, the Hokies had another obstacle thrown in their way when star PG and VT all-time assist leader Justin Robinson suffered an undisclosed injury against Miami. This came less than 2 weeks after VT lost PJ Horne (who returned in mid-February) to an unknown injury.
All of a sudden, the Hokies were not only without their key offensive player but also had a depth chart that was borderline six-deep.
But just as Buzz Williams and Virginia Tech did for the past four years, they didn't make excuses and figured it out.
Without Robinson, Virginia Tech has gone 5-3 with a pair of wins over teams ranked in the top 25 at the time of facing them. Additionally, the Hokies have won 4 of their past 5 after a 1-2 start without Robinson while not suffering a loss by more than 8 points.
The Hokies have done this through a reinventing of their team and gameplan starting with slowing the tempo and looking to get into low-scoring, defensive games. Meanwhile, Kerry Blackshear has taken his game to the next level and may have played himself onto the All-ACC First Team this season. On top of that, Isaiah Wilkins has stepped up and been valuable as a sixth man while Jon Kabongo has seen his development grow and become an ACC-quality bench player for several minutes.
Throughout his time at Virginia Tech, Buzz Williams has transformed the Hokies from the hard way to the right way. He's transformed the culture that was nonexistent into one that is the right way, that is built around the team and not a collection of individuals.
Buzz Williams made Virginia Tech the right way for a transfer from Maryland to come to Virginia Tech, not always play point guard, and help transform a bottom-tier ACC team into a top half team. Williams made Virginia Tech the right way for a power forward that was seen as undersized for the ACC and seemed to be the type of transfer that should be leaving South Florida for a smaller conference, not Virginia Tech.
Williams made Virginia Tech the right way for a five-star recruit to ply his craft and develop into a potential lottery recruit, something that is unheard of in Blacksburg. Williams made Virginia Tech the right way for a point guard who flew under-the-radar but had star potential that Williams saw, a forward who ran down the floor in an unconventional way, a guard who was committed to an established program like Marquette, and players with almost no major offers but can step into a major role.
When Buzz Williams came to Virginia Tech, everyone thought he was crazy given the promise his coaching career had shown and what he had built at Marquette in one of America's best conferences compared to a bottom-tier ACC job.
But the right way is the hard way and at Virginia Tech, Buzz Williams has once again figured out how to make the hard way the right way at a place that never knew the right way to consistent basketball prominence.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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